Under Construction

I rocked my husband's world recently with my assertion that science, like most things we believe in or not, is a human construct. His eyes widened and his eyebrows furrowed as he asked me to clarify. He mentioned something about how I shaking the very foundations on which he bases his understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

"Well, there is The Way The Universe Works," something we'll just say is, an absolute if you like skipping, for argument's sake, Eastern philosophical notions of reality not being real and all that because that's a whole other debate. - What we call science is merely our understanding of it, our interpretation, based on our constructed languages, our observations, and our study of those observations.  Some science would seem to be true, or shall we say True in the Western philosophical sense.

What we call science changes all the time. We often get things wrong or only get them right up to our perception abilities at the time.  There was nothing smaller than they eye could perceive, then there were cells, then atoms, then particles...  Newtonian physics was the be all end all until Einstein turned it on its ear.  What we call science is a perpetual revisionist history."

"What about that wonderful Neil deGrass Tyson quote you love? 'The great thing about science is that it's true whether you believe it or not.'" (Lawyers... The smart ones always know how to counter well.)

"We use the word science 2 ways: the way Tyson is using it is The Way the Univers Works - we'll say TWtUW or TWUW for short (Yes, as in "Twoo love" from The Princess Bride). But science also means the study of TWUW.  That study, our observations and calculations, are a human construct that doesn't exist outside of us."

"Your proof?"

"What do you call Chinese food in China, as the old joke goes?"


"The Way the Universe Works doesn't need to name quarks to have them exist and part of the system. It doesn't even need us to know they're there, hence Tyson's quote. The naming game is ours, along with the quantifying game. It's our human need to understand and define it, even our flawed need to control it.

"Take Darwin's theory of evolution.  It's our best explanation to date on how life, well, evolves.  It would appear to have been going on long before Darwin came up with it, whether we believe in it or not, which references Tyson again.  I'll admit the fundamentalist religious side uses a similar argument.  The difference is at least we have quite a bit more data to back up our theories and a fair amount of objectivity in asserting them."

"So how to differentiate and make my head stop hurting?"

Much as I despise the "art with a capital A" nonsense, I suppose we could have science with a capital 'S' to mean TWUW, and a lower case 's' to mean our inherently flawed, though ever improving study of Science."

"So now that you've undermined it, what is the foundation of my worldview?!?"

"I think we're safe with Science, and we'll keep learning about it via science.  Humans can never know or control it all, or we wouldn't be human. Built into Science is an embracing of the unknown even if we are driven by our own need to know it. 

"That's my human construct."


John said...

I can't resist responding to this, Victoria.
The study and perpetuation of science is a bit 'spongy' in that theories and calculations can be under scrutiny until proven fact.
But the foundation of science is the understanding of our physical world, granted, through the eyes of flawed human beings. The facts don't get refuted because Eastern philosophy decrees that there is no such thing beyond human perception (a contradictory broad and narrow thought all at the same time).
We use language to speak. Does that mean the objects and conditions we speak of don't exist outside of the words we use? Does the word "rock" bring the thing into existence or can it exist without our ever naming it?

Personally, I don't think we're really made up of what we think we are and that the universe is far more peculiar place than we will ever know. Why? Because it exists with or without our being in it and science is just our language for understanding what it's made of.

Or not.....

Victoria Lansford said...

Love your comment!!! The idea of naming and the existence of things brings up the whole idea of semiotics. The importance in Western culture of naming things into existence goes straight back to Genesis. (God creating the animals then bringing them to Adam to name.)

First we name things then we assign them numbers, be they elements and atomic weights in the periodic table or children, who as soon as their names are on birth certificates, receive social security numbers and are soon ever after qualified by their grades and later as adults by their salaries. (That's actually the topic of a future post in progress.)

This concept of naming into being is at the heart of humans' narcissistic belief that our use of language makes us in charge. Makes me thing of all the dolphins at the beginning of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who'd been trying to communicate with us for ages except humans weren't smart enough to understand. In our family, code for calling someone obtuse is "So long, and thanks for all the fish!"

I agree about the universe being "a far more peculiar than we will ever know." For people like us, that's half the fun.

John said...

Have you read Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books? She thoroughly explores the concept of the power of names in them.

Victoria Lansford said...

Haven't read it, but sounds like I need to give it a try. Thanks for the recommendation!